ALEIGHSA WELCH does not have to look far at South Carolina women’s basketball home games to find the biggest influence in her life. Sharell Welch sits in Section 104 at Colonial Life Arena, usually attired in a custom-made replica USC jersey with her daughter’s No. 24 and the name “WELCH” on the back.
Sharell has not missed a home game in her daughter’s four-season career, and she will be on the court prior to Thursday’s game against Mississippi State as part of the team’s annual senior night celebration.
Over the course of that career, Welch has developed into one of the steadiest and most reliable players in program history, ranking in the top 10 all-time in career games played, rebounds, blocked shots and double-doubles. She will finish just outside the top 10 in scoring.
No statistics sheet can begin to fully recognize the contributions Welch has made to the program during her career. Her teammates have elected her a captain each of the past three seasons. She clearly is the team’s leader, on and off the court.
Welch soon will become a four-time member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll. She will graduate in May with a degree in sport and entertainment management. She long ago accepted the role as team spokesperson, addressing the media at every turn with a confidence rarely seen in college athletes.
She owes it all to her mom.
“That is a character, right there,” Welch said, punctuating the comment with the same ear-to-ear smile and boisterous laughter her mother shares. “She’s a personable person. She loves to be around people, she loves to talk to people.”
Then comes the kicker.
“My mother rubbed off on me.”
• • •
Aleighsa Welch did not stand a chance. Right out of the womb, mom tagged a nickname on her that has stuck like her defense on SEC opponents.
“That’s my little chocolate chip muffin,” mom said at birth and repeats often to anyone who will listen.
Dawn Staley, her coaching staff and Welch’s teammates have shortened it to “Muffin,” and use the moniker in a reverential fashion.
Early in Welch’s USC career, mom arrived along with her daughter’s fan club of 15 or so, replete with T-shirts that pictured a trio of muffins on the front under the heading “Queen of the Court,” and “Team Muffinator” on the back.
Mom has known best for her daughter through a military career that carried her husband, Ernesto, and two children around the world and back. Sharell retired in 2006 after 22 years as a paralegal in the Navy. She has since reentered the workforce in the same capacity.
Aleighsa was born in Florida, then was off to Spain, before heading to Pensacola, Fla., and settling in Charleston. While in Spain, Aleighsa first learned to play the national sport of soccer. Then she picked up basketball with her older brother, Ernesto.
At every stop, mom registered her daughter for recreation basketball on a military base. By the time Aleighsa reached the eighth grade at Marrington Middle School in Goose Creek, it was obvious her talents far exceeded those of a recreation ball player. She was fully developed and almost to her current 6-foot stature. Her brother is 6-3, father is 6-1 and mother 5-8.
Word had spread in the Goose Creek community that Welch was a developing star. Tim Baldwin, the Goose Creek High varsity girls coach, heard the stories and visited Aleighsa’s mother. A private tryout for the JV team was arranged, although the team had been selected.
Young Welch wanted no part of it.
Mom had other ideas and sat her down with the following talk: “Let’s make a deal. Give it one practice. Just one time. Go, see if you like it. If you don’t, I’ll sign you up the next day for rec ball.”
Mom dropped Aleighsa off at the gym and returned after the tryout.
“I need some work,” mom recalls Aleighsa saying, “but I think we’ll be OK.”
“So, are you going to stay on the team?” mom replied.
Aleighsa played four games on the JV team then moved to varsity where she remained for five seasons, leading Goose Creek to its first girls basketball championship as a junior and earning “South Carolina Miss Basketball” honors as a senior.
With Staley watching, Welch scored 36 points to go with 15 rebounds as Goose Creek defeated Spring Valley for the 2010 Class 4A state title at Colonial Life Arena. The game was played on a Friday night. The following morning at 10, Staley called Welch with a scholarship offer.
Welch’s first scholarship offer came from College of Charleston. She also considered Clemson, Georgetown, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. Then, Staley and assistant coach Lisa Boyer made an official home visit five months after the scholarship offer.
“The athleticism jumped off the page. Her ability to rebound in traffic jumped off the page,” Staley said. “Then, when you meet her mother, oh my goodness. That’s who we honed in on. We honed in on the mom. She wasn’t going anywhere without the mom’s blessing.”
Staley and Boyer were served mom’s famous – at least in the Welch family – chocolate chip cookies (no muffins), and Staley asked mom what she wanted for her daughter at USC. Staley then made her pitch, believing that Welch could be the first big in-state recruit for her program.
Staley was looking down the road and saw the same kind of top-level talent within the state that Steve Spurrier had tapped in building his football program. Behind Welch were Asia Dozier and Khadijah Sessions the next year, followed by Alaina Coates, then A’ja Wilson.
“I want you to be my first in-state recruit, signee,” Welch recalls Staley telling her. “I want to turn this program around from here.”
Welch had photos taken with Staley and Boyer, one of which still flanks a wall in her bedroom at home. When the two-hour meeting concluded and the coaches departed, Aleighsa checked with mom to get approval on attending USC.
Staley’s talk about the discipline and structure needed to succeed on the court and in the classroom at USC struck a chord. It was most appealing to mom, who was big on discipline in the Welch household, making certain all beds were made before school in the morning, collecting cell phones at 11 each evening, and never allowing sleepovers for her daughter.
“I know what I wanted for me, but I wanted to make sure (mom) was comfortable,” Aleighsa said. “It was going to be my home away from home. Anyone who knows me knows my relationship with my mom is thicker than anything. If she wasn’t comfortable, that was going to be something I was going to have to re-evaluate. They knew that. They made her comfortable.”
Now, four seasons later, Aleighsa Welch will, no doubt, give the proverbial basketball finger-point for the biggest assist of all to her mother during Thursday’s Senior Night ceremony.
The ensuing hug will be extra special.